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Goals & Desires

Randy O’Reilly gave a talk at CU Boulder yesterday entitled “Goal-driven Cognition in the Brain:….” It was an excellent look at how goals have emerged in cognitive science and psychology and how goal-based models have improved upon previous behaviorist models. He also told a story about how goal-driven cognitive models can be grounded in neurobiology.1 There are two reasons I mention this talk. First, Randy’s talk convinced me that “goals” have a valuable place in the ontology of mental states. Second, his talk helped me realize an example that shows how goals and desires are dissociable. In this post, I will talk about this second item.


Before I get to this example, allow me to provide some background. Imagine a two-step process of goal-based cognition.2 The two steps are, roughly,…

    1. figuring out which goal is best and…
    2. engaging in (or pursuing) that goal.

Goals that are achieved produce some kind of reward (viz., [insert dopamine story here]). If the goal is rewarded often, then the reward might be triggered sooner, say, when the goal is first engaged. Goals that are not achieved (or that are abandoned) are not rewarded. You might have guessed that these goals are operating in a reinforcement system where rewarding goals are more likely to be engaged in the future and non-rewarding goals are less likely to be engaged in the future.

From this view it follows that negative goals—viz., a goal to avoid a certain outcome—will either not exist or will become unviable.

This makes sense phenomenologically when you think about it. It is difficult to be aware of the fact that you have achieved a negative goal (e.g., the point at which you are not doing X or avoiding outcome Y), so these goals are unlikely to be associated with the rewards that normally accompany goal-completion. And if there is no reward associated with such goals, then the goals will not likely be engaged in the future, which means they probably won’t be viable goals.3

This idea about negative goals being unviable also makes sense in light of our phenomenal experience. For instance, you know as well as I do that successfully avoiding certain simple outcomes (e.g., overeating, procrastinating, etc.) is often harder than engaging in and completing certain simple positive goals (e.g., [insert your favorite form of procrastination here]).

Still, it would be odd to say that I don’t have negative goals. Surely there are things that I desire to avoid, right?


For example, I remember that when I was first considering buying a smartphone I made the following commitment: if I buy the smartphone, then I will not use it to play silly games—I guess I needed to convince myself that the smartphone was an important tool for productivity so that I could rationalize the purchase of an otherwise expensive toy. I ended up buying the phone and six months later I was playing Pocket Planes and Clash of Clans on a regular basis.

Before Randy’s talk I thought it was perfectly sensible to think that I had a goal to not play games on my smartphone. Then Randy explained how this might not be so simple. This made me wonder: if there is no such thing as a viable negative goal, then how do I characterize my commitment to not play games on my smartphone? Below I list some possibilities.

    • the commitment was a desire to avoid something, but that just isn’t a goal.
    • the commitment was a desire to avoid something, which can form a goal, but such a negative goal will not likely enjoy reinforcement since such goals are often unsuccessful (or unsuccessfully engaged).
    • the commitment was a desire to avoid something, and these desires can form goals only if they take the form of positive subgoals (e.g., to do something other than [play smartphone games] in context X).

I am attracted to the latter two possibilities. Perhaps I will develop my thoughts on these possibilities in another post, but for now I want to emphasize that this example helps reveal how desires and goals are dissociable. After all, we have strong desires to avoid certain outcomes, but there is some reason to think that we do not have goals that match these desires—because these desires (i) never/rarely turn into successful goals and/or (ii) simply don’t fit into the reinforcement models of cognition. So there you have it: there is reason to think that there can be negative desires without negative goal counterparts.

And in case you were wondering, I [re]quit Pocket Planes and Clash of Clans a month ago and I have been game-free ever since…but just in case I relapse, do you have any game recommendations?


  1. And, for it’s worth, Randy’s grounding story was far more developed than John Bargh’s—or what I know of John Bargh’s story.
  2. This two-step process seems to be held by others as well, e.g., Gollwitzer.
  3. My apologies to Randy if I am botching the reasons for his view.

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Nick Byrd

Nick is a cognitive scientist at Florida State University studying reasoning, wellbeing, and willpower. Check out his blog at byrdnick.com/blog